Annual Review of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Volume 2, 2005
PUPIL VOICE AND RESEARCH: A NARRATIVE REVIEW
This narrative review explores the representation of pupil voice through and in research. The article presents the context for
interest in pupil voice, both my own and then, as revealed in Education journals over the last five years, the research and broader
contexts. Articles were selected for the light they shed on calls for pupils’ voices to be heard, representation of those voices and
methodological issues problematised by researchers working with young people.
Who is asking? What are they asking? How and where? Who is listening and why? These questions affect the nature of data
received from pupils. Issues of control, both of the research process and the data, are discussed and practical problems in
accessing missing voices and implementing methods are presented. The review ends by exploring factors which seem set to
disillusion participants, jeopardising the potential of pupil voice for research.
someone is asking us what we think about this gifted stuff.
What took you so long? (Galbraith in Kunkel et al., 1985)
My interest in pupil voice emerged from a grounded research study developed for an Education and Communication
doctorate, responding to a knowledge gap in the field of gifted education. Stimulated by ‘the investigator’s curiosity’ (Sidman in
Buchanan and Feldhusen, 1991), my research arose from observations made during practice as a teacher and focused on a sub-
group of able pupils who experienced social difficulties at school. I wanted to examine the social environment in the hope of
teasing out factors that exacerbated or eased their problems.
Buchanan and Feldhusen (1991 p13) stress the necessity of ‘view(ing)…issues, questions and concerns from a variety of
perspectives…in order to see major patterns in the fabric of gifted education,’ particularly necessary as schools rarely present an
entirely consonant construct as teachers, principals, parents and pupils jostle with ‘contradictory beliefs and judgments’
(Hamilton, 2002 p597). I was keen to avoid the ‘tendency for research to focus on the intrapsychotic function of the developing
child rather than systematic detailing of the social environment and the organism, despite macrotheoretical statements of the
importance of that interaction’ (Shantz, 1987 p301).
Biographical case study has been used to draw out theory about ability since the 1870s (Hollingworth, 1942 p15-9),
allowing holistic investigation of ‘contemporary phenomena within its real life context’ (Yin in Robson, 1991 p56). Researcher
observation or teacher report appeared the most popular methods for gaining data on school behaviour, but as my interest lay in
accessing pupils’ perceptions in order to compare them with the perceptions of parents and teachers, my attention focused on
the methodological challenges of accessing pupils’ voices.
Selection of Literature
Peer reviewed journals provide much of the self-regulation considered ‘essential’ to academic educational research (Hammersley, 2003 p15). Pressure to publish or perish means new thinking tends to premier in journals. Consequently, in seeking up-to-date work for this review, I decided to focus on journals, primarily published between 2000 and 2005. Searches focused on pupil voice and student participation, conducted through on-line educational databases, hand searches of journals and recourse to TES archives and websites of interested organisations accessed via SOSIG. Literature was selected for the light shed on
• the context for the focus on pupil voice
• representation of pupil voice
• methods issues
Nisbet’s (2005) description of the history of educational research, documenting changes in its nature, purpose and status, provides useful context for the emergence of interest in pupil voice. From marginal activities in academic niches concerned with psychologically-rooted, theoretical quantifications taken seriously by few teachers or educational administrators, educational research grew to a discipline that expanded to connect with the education of teachers, encompassing sociological perspectives and qualitative methods. Its use of action research – a process of development involving practitioners and sometimes clients with professional researchers - fed into the teacher-researcher movement. This together with calls for ‘knowledge creating schools’ (Hargreaves in Baumfield, 2000) laid the foundations for involving pupils in research.
Ruddock and Flutter (2000 p76) highlight the political impetus behind listening to children’s voices, stemming from a concern for rights, equality and fairness demonstrated by the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They comment that the association of child-centred education with leftist progressivism and fears of destabilising traditional child/adult relationships (Winter and Connolly in ibid p79) led to resistance to taking account of pupil views. Despite the fact that pupils often function in adult ways outside the gates, school structures have failed to change in recognition (p86). The social construct of ‘childhood’ (Freeman in ibid p80), founded on an ‘ideology of immaturity’ (Grace in ibid), denies children status as ‘social actors’ (James and Proutt in ibid p81).
Notwithstanding, the Children’s Act; Special Educational Needs (SEN): Code of Practice; Every Child Matters and the introduction of Citizenship education (May, 2005) have focused attention on inclusion and democratic participation. Drives for school improvement and evidence-based practice have prompted funding for inquiry involving pupils (ESRC funded Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP)). Ruddock and Flutter (2000 p82) stress tensions in serving ‘the narrow ends of a grades-obsessed society rather than empower(ment).’ Emphasis on ‘rapid results’ encourages researchers to ‘move on to new projects’ (Kanefsky, 2001; Fielding, 2003 p291), luring attention away from ‘the anomalous’ (Bragg in Fielding, 2004 p303). A ‘context of performativity and surveillance’ restricts the space for developing reciprocal pupil-teacher relationships, limiting the ‘transformative potential’ of research (Fielding, 2004 p308).
Calls for Pupils’ Voices
Whilst pupils do not have much to say about the curriculum, they have much to say about ‘the conditions of learning in schools; how regimes and relationships shape their sense of status as individual learners as members of the community and, consequently, affect their commitment to learning in school’ (Ruddock and Flutter, 2000 p76).
Spera and Wentzel’s (2003) study highlights worrying lack of congruence between pupils’ and teachers’ goals, even amongst a ‘fairly homogenous sample’ of middle-class, white pupils. Wood (2003 p380) found teachers’ and boys’ location of learning difficulties differed and Riley (2004) found multiple differences between teachers’ and disaffected and disadvantaged pupils’ perspectives. Some teachers focusing on control (Didaskalou and Millward, 2002 p112; Leino and Lahelma, 2002) and moral domains (Krumboltz et al. in ibid), judge students more for social conformity and motivation than performance (Wentzel in ibid). The ‘complex dynamics of the classrooms and the personalities of pupils’ (Didaskalou and Millward, 2002 p113) support triangulating views for a connected view.
McIntyre et al.’s (2005) case studies describe how six teachers adapted their practice in response to TLRP pupil feedback. While pupils’ responses were found to be constructive, consistent and insightful, teachers reacted in different ways. Some responded adaptively initially but resumed practices they knew to be less engaging for pragmatic reasons, principally constraints imposed by the curriculum. Others felt threatened and dismissed the worth of pupil statements; while others initially responded sceptically but found pupils’ contributions stimulated reflection and changes in practice. Wood (2003 p381) found teachers reluctant to accept perceptions about curriculum and pedagogy or ‘challenge(s to) the dominant structures’ of the school. Fielding (2004 p309) found staff to be ‘supportive of the process and the values and intentions…but…critical…of the quality.’
Interestingly, despite commonly holding positivist models and questioning the value of their own research (Simons et al., 2003 p355), teachers’ practice tends not to be greatly influenced by generalised academic research. Evaluating the School-based Consortium Initiative, Simons et al. (2003 p361) conclude that although ‘traditional models of knowledge transfer’ are effective for ‘practitioners of relatively limited level of competence,’ more experienced practitioners need ownership of research ‘validat(ed) according to contextual as well as generic criteria.’ Bassey (in Vulliamy and Webb, 1993 p198) suggests that it is situated research, with facets teachers identify as relevant to their own classrooms that teachers are most likely to act upon.
As Baumfield (2000) found, from work with the Teacher Training Association (TTA) funded North East School-based Consortium, ‘teachers engage in research before they engage with it’ and ‘pupil feedback is the key to change.’ However, a ‘precondition’ (Ruddock, 2002) is ‘teachers who believe that pupils’ perspectives are important,’ as only they ‘will make the sustained effort… need(ed) …to engage in pupil consultation’ (McIntyre et al., 2005 p167).
Representation of Pupil Voices
Pupil research is often funded by charities and frequently appears in the field of Special Education. Literature relating to pupil voice and research reveals frequent conflation of participation and consultation. May (2004 p68-9) examines the terms used interchangeably to convey the undefined concept of participation within the SEN Code of Practice. A selection is relevant to research: consultation, involvement, contribution, responsibility, self-efficacy, partnership. In teasing out meaning, May identifies differences in the degree of participation: consulting – ‘based on the requirement of the initiator;’ involvement – where ‘both parties influence the decisions’ and partnership – with ‘reciprocal decision-making and responsibility. The same shifts in participation are evident in Handscombe and Macbeath’s (2003) hierarchy of research engagement in schools: from surface consultation to deeper partnership.
Whilst A.S.Neill’s democratic Summerhill was considered radical in the 20s for valuing pupil voice, the mainstream has adopted the concept of councils. However, although school councils appear in an estimated 60-70% of UK schools (Schools Council UK in TES 14 May 2004), only 10% display ‘real effectiveness’ (Lyons in TES 14 February 2003). At one end of the spectrum, councils function as focus groups on issues such as uniform, school meals, lockers (Ruddock and Flutter) facilities and, in primary schools, playground issues (TES 14 February 2003). Often they provide ‘damage limitation rather than opportunity for constructive consultation’ (Rudduck and Flutter, 2000 p83). At the other end, pupils are consulted or gather data about ‘aspects of classroom learning,…social policies and structures’ and ‘relationships with teachers, pupils and the community’ (Ruddock and Flutter), even being involved in recruitment of new staff (TES 14 February 2003).
briefing No. 5 (2003) highlights five kinds of research activity: ‘wide-angle
approaches,’ such as referenda to establish generalised issues; spotlighting of
particular issues or the concerns of particular pupil groups; systemic
approaches monitoring and evaluating new strategies, drawing on pupils’
expertise; support for individual learners with learning difficulties;
preparation for inspection or ongoing self-review and ‘establishing a more
democratic school system, putting citizenship education into action or
enlisting pupils to be researchers and co-researchers into aspects of the
Who is asking? How and where? Who is listening? Why? These questions affect the nature of the data received (Alcoff in Fielding, 2004 p300-1).
Whose Voice or Voices?
Nieto (in Rudduck and Flutter, 2000 p82) warns against a ‘romantic view’ that privileges pupils’ views in impractical ways without acknowledging young people’s limitations. Wise (in Curtis et al., 2004 p169) questions the notion that all young people want the opportunity to speak out and whether everyone can.
TLRP Briefing No. 5 (2003) warns against listening only to ‘strident or articulate’ voices. Some pupils’ voices are gagged by lack of expressive fluidity in the researcher’s language. Even when pupils are free to participate or not, there are societal pressures influencing them, favouring middle class girls and making working class pupils feel excluded (ibid). Perhaps this explains why some Heads have reported pupils as holding conservative views (TES 14 February 2003). Perhaps these reflect the ‘please the teacher’ views some teachers fear consultation processes elicit (Ruddock and Flutter). However, they seem equally likely to elicit the inverse.
Curtis et al. (2004 p168) highlight problems with groupings. Peer pressure affects who speaks in a group and what they will say in front of others. Pupils will express themselves differently in mixed or single sex groups. Group size affects some pupils’ volubility. Some prefer one-to-one discussions; others are threatened by them. The problem of finding ways to listen to ‘difficult to access voices,’ such as pupils who skip school, is challenging.
It should be remembered that, while engaging pupils in gathering data on matters they perceive affects them, and a ‘coherent and negotiated’ research process (Ruddock and Flutter, may increase access to pupil knowledge, there is no one pupil voice. Canvassing the majority may provide pupil consensus but there is a risk that this may represent the ‘ ‘groupthink’ characteristic of a cohesive in-group’ (Baumfield 2000).
Just as citizens of democracies lose their vote because of their inability or unwillingness to take part in the process of voting, some members of the pupil community are likely to remain disenfranchised by the research process. Finding ways to engage interest and impetus to speak presents the first challenge. The second lies in finding ways to collect and represent pupils’ views in ways that genuinely illuminate the realities of pupils’ experience.
Whose Line is it Anyway?
Adult selected topics framed in ‘restricting, alienating or patronising language’ are not engaging (Fielding, 2004 p306). The most common research methods are questionnaires and interviews (Curtis et al. 2004 p169) or focus groups (Fielding, 2004 p306). Attempts to devolve control are evidenced in innovative methods of data collection: photographs (Kaplan and Howes, 2004), storying (Sanders and Munford, 2005), drawings and completion exercises (May 2005 p31).
Ruddock and Flutter (2000 p82) speak of ‘harnessing pupils’ insights.’ But how does answering someone else’s questions equate with having a voice? ‘Adult decisions of relevance or importance…can disempower the pupil’ (May, 2004 p71). Fielding (2004) and May (2004 p71-2; 2005) criticise contrived, one-way nature research, advocating creating space for pupils to initiate research autonomously, enabling a climate of ‘radical collegiality’ (Fielding 2004 p308). Fielding (2004) warns of the dangers of ‘covert construction’ of student voice during the process of representing it, particularly through what Humphries (in ibid pp298-9) identifies as ‘accommodation, accumulation and appropriation,’ whereby the problematic is downplayed, morally subverted or used to reinforce stereotypes. Contradictory micro-level descriptive evidence rarely features in the explanations for macro-level prescriptions (Wood, 2003 p367; Pollard and Triggs in Fielding, 2003; Curtis et al. 2004). Pupil representation of peer’s views seems, however, just as likely to involve ‘covert construction’ as adults,’ albeit reproducing different influences.
Curtis et al. (2004) highlight the lack of discussion about difficulties in the research process, the nuts and bolts of accessing young people’s views. From the literature and their own work they point to:
• initial contact issues2: incentives and genuine consent; ethical issues such as confidentiality and child protection; gatekeepers’ role in selecting the sample
• data collection issues: validity and reliability of methods; relationship between researcher and researched whether former teacher, caregiver, or unknown adult; techniques for eliciting data such as spending time or joining in activities; groupings and setting, including seating arrangements; questioning styles; use of ground rules; appropriate reactions to pupil responses, particularly racist or homophobic behaviour; expectations about the nature of research and responses; methods for engaging interest and stimulating reflective responses such as use of visual aids, props, games and internet; methods for recording data; emotional safety
• extrinsic issues: the relationship between the process and role of the researcher with the demands of funders.
Whilst ethics of working with young people have been drawn out (Mishna et al. 2004; Alderson in Curtis et al. 2004), there is little discussion of the ethics involved when pupils are themselves researchers.
Pupils ‘tire of…(in)authentic invitations’ (TLRP Briefing No. 5, 2003). Genuine, non-judgmental (Curtis, 2004 p172) engagement is advocated to avoid the de-person-izing effect of ‘students becoming objects of our professional gaze’ (Fielding, 2004 p303). Attending to students’ views of things that teachers have power to change (Phelan in Ruddock and Flutter, 2000 p82) and readiness to explain the limits of what is possible through open feedback (TLRP Briefing No. 5, 2003) avoid pupils becoming disenchanted by the lack of impact of their voices.
It is not surprising that some of the constraints teachers identified as impeding their research capability: lack of time (Evans et al., 2000), space, funding, management support, initiative overload and real incentive (Kanefsky, 2001) features in observations about pupil involvement. Just as designating teacher time and resources, albeit justified as professional development, communicates value, so identifying school time for pupil representatives to meet, providing opportunities for reporting results accords status to pupil activity (TES 14 February 2003).
Teachers are incentivized by financial support for qualifications (Evans et al., 2000). Curtis et al. (2004 p170) found opportunity to order and share a pizza not only a useful incentive for encouraging volunteers, but a useful icebreaker which established relationships better than offering money vouchers, which gave interactions a transactional edge.
Research in Jeopardy
Hammersley (2001) criticises systematic reviews for privileging some forms of research to the detriment of qualitative research because the method proves inadequate for valid synthesis. This resonates with problems facing school action research, when the ‘slow pace of worthwhile change’ (Ruddock et al. 2000a) makes evaluation difficult.
Furlong and Salisbury (2005), evaluating Best Practice Research scheme practitioner research, certainly did ‘mind the quality’ (Foster in ibid p80). Judged by academic standards many studies produced effects of little significance and lacked rigour, but they did also ‘feel the impact.’ Their calls for the development of ‘effective criteria to judge quality’ (ibid p81), recognise the difficult-to-quantify benefits of practitioner action research (NCSL, 2003; Handscomb and McBeath, 2003), and by extension, pupil research, including participant confidence, assertiveness, pro-active control, networking, teamwork and understanding (Barker, 2004 p243). Evans et al. (2000 p407) support Bassey’s argument, recommending dissemination of practitioner research ‘through ‘transferability’ rather than ‘generalisability.’
It cost Summerhill GBP150,000 to earn the right to be evaluated against its own aims (TES 31 March 2000), recognising the ‘personal, social, moral and political outcomes…far in excess of “normal” schools’ and winning the right to have pupils’ views heard by OFSTED (TES 12 July 2002). At the mercy of funders’ whims, I hope practitioner research and projects directly involving pupils will not be collateral damage in the ongoing ‘epistemological …battle of snails’ (Schon in Evans et al. 2000 p406).
This article has presented a review of issues connected with pupil voice and research arising in the literature surveyed. It points to two fundamental challenges:
• finding ways to engage pupils’ interest and impetus to speak
• finding methods of collecting and representing pupils’ views in ways that genuinely illuminate the realities of their experience.
The lack of attention given to research process problems identified by Curtis et al. (2004) needs to be rectified and clarity is needed about the purpose of involving pupils if disillusionment is not to jeopardise the potential of research.
1 Young children’s ability to articulate learning strategies is highlighted by McCallum et al.’s (2004) research summaries.
2 The italicized headings are my own.
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About the author
Joanna Johnston (J.K.M.Johnston@ncl.ac.uk) is currently a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University. Eight years as a
teacher provided her with insights into aspects of schooling, which now support her academic endeavours. In addition to pupil
voice and research methodology, her research interests include the social environment of school and high ability issues. She is at
present investigating practitioner research and developing a socio-cognitive approach to social competence.